DOWNEY -- It’s Thursday afternoon and a line of students extends out of a classroom door at Downey High School.
About 10 of these older students navigate through the crowd to enter the classroom first, storing their lacrosse sticks, track duffle bags, and AP Biology textbooks to find a seat and settle themselves in for an hour and a half of writers talking with other writers. This is Downey High School’s Writing Center, a program that has gone through three years of relocation, revision and refining.
At the conclusion of second semester in 2013, the Writing Center was proud to have completed nearly 500 writing tutorials. Now, as the new school year begins, the writing center has calculated the completion of over 1,600 tutorials last year with projections exceeding 1,700 tutorials for this school year.
It was asserted at a California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) conference titled, Teaching Practices and Instructional Strategies That Position Students Closer to Reading and Writing Excellence, “the only way for students to get over their fears of writing and to build real confidence and real skill is to write more than four major essays every year.”
Students need to write informally every day and formally nearly every week. Then the question arose, how can teachers possibly manage this paper load and still provide students with thoughtful, personal feedback?
Downey High School has found one answer to this question; they let students do a lot of this work.
Nearly all universities utilize writing centers on their campuses to help support student writers through their college years. Downey Unified has embraced collaboration in the classrooms, moving away from teacher-directed time in favor of student-directed conversation, yet high school writing centers are still a rarity.
However, Downey High School English teacher Kelly Crespo and her English Department colleagues, have found out that with strategic planning, several willing volunteers and an empty classroom after school are enough to make some incredibly valuable conversations happen. Conversations that are capable of helping teachers in their movements to add volume and rigor to curriculum and conversations that are also individualized, allowing teachers to differentiate for virtually every kind of student.
In late 2012, Crespo and fellow English teachers Josette Bean and Tina Carlson set out to build a makeshift Writing Center, wherein they proposed to take the English 10 intervention funding and redirect it toward building a program would allow them to serve all students more effectively. To that end, they proposed the Downey High School Writing Center.
With the support of Downey High School Principal Tom Houts, along with other administrators, they were able to hire two college tutors and then sought out juniors and seniors enrolled in AP Literature and honors classes. With fellow teachers beginning to offer some extra credit and/or participation points, they were able to build a staff of about 17 tutors with each tutor serving an hour and a half after school each week.
In 2013, they were then able to open the Writing Center to the English 10 students when second semester began. Even though many of the teachers encourage students to come by before school, snack, lunch, after school to seek extra help, teacher authority (regardless of their enthusiasm to help) can create an unintentionally stressful atmosphere.
A peer, however, will likely always beat teachers at being young, relatable, and, therefore, more approachable.
Teachers at Downey High School integrate the Writing Center in various ways in their classrooms; yet, regardless of the way in which a teacher chooses to encourage or require writing center attendance, students with all different strengths and weaknesses visit the Writing Center each day to talk through their writing.
Visiting the Writing Center after school means entering the conversation of about 10 pairs of tutors and tutees—some English learners, some special education students, some honors students, and some fall into those in-between categories. Nonetheless, the conversation can meet these students where they are in ways a teacher in a classroom of thirty-plus students cannot.
As they approach their eighth semester of service, the Writing Center’s staff has grown to 56 tutors including four paid college tutors, and they are now proud to be the “model program” at Downey High School. They have also expanded the Writing Center to serve freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and also have grown the community of teacher supervisors from the original three to eight teachers.
“There is something to starting and ending my day in the center; hearing my own students and those that I don’t know talk about their writing, problem-solving, revising, navigating a prompt, doing work of real writers,” expressed Crespo. “It’s a space that makes sense, we can’t talk to our students as often as a team of young tutors can.
"Moreover, although not all of our tutors can point out every comma splice or fragment, they can get our students to talk about their writing in ways we simply cannot.”